“Sylveon, Shadow Ball!” Ortega called.
“Yeah, let’s do this!” Arven slapped his face with both hands. “Greedent, Bullet Seed!”
Was that his attempt at another ‘battle pose’? Ortega didn’t bother to ask. The match had to be his focus. Greedent spat out four rounds of seeds, landing perfect hits on Altaria every time. A lucky break.
Altaria, to its credit, got in a nasty Dragon Pulse, but Greedent still had plenty of energy.
“Yeah, bet you wish you were a flying dragon again, huh?” Arven laughed.
Altaria cawed. Its voice was adorable. Its tone sounded murderous. Then it beat its wings to build up another Hurricane attack. Greedent produced a massive Sitrus Berry from its fur and began to devour it.
Sylveon waited until the swirling ball of ghostly energy reached its peak. Then she leapt and released it. Down, down it flew–straight at Mimikyu. But before Shadow Ball landed, Mimikyu disappeared in a flash of red light. Not a ghost-type attack but a recall. Ortega’s stomach dropped. In Mimikyu’s place came a large, muscular Toxtricity. Where Sylveon would have landed next to Mimikyu, it now scraped its ankle against a sparking, poisonous barb.
Shadow Ball found its mark and burst with a cloud of energy on Toxtricity’s side. The massive purple lizard hissed with pain. Instead of spitting more poison, however, it threw back its head and howled. Sparks flew across its body. Electricity built up in the air, making Ortega’s hair stand on end.
What the HECK? How am I the one losing? But he couldn’t deny facts. He had one shot to make Sylveon’s part in this battle matter. Which meant helping Arven. Greedent’s cheeks were stuffed and ready to fire again. The number of hits would be random, unless–
Unless, of course, it had Cloyster’s Skill Link ability. Which Sylveon was conveniently holding.
“Sylveon, use Skill Swap one more time!” Ortega called out.
The move came quicker to Sylveon now. A newly energized Greedent used Bullet Seed again. Five berry pits flew through the air. Each one was a perfect shot. At the same time, waves of electricity poured off Toxtricity, hitting every other Pokémon on their field. Its ally included. Grusha’s bulky cotton bird might have taken the hit–if Greedent’s full power attack hadn’t weakened it so much. The building wind between its wings died out. The crystalline snowflake on its head melted as its Tera Form shell shattered. With a mighty cry, it fainted.
And in a perfect mirror image, so did Sylveon.
Grusha said nothing as he recalled his Pokémon. Then, in a flash, Cetitan appeared on the stage.
Greedent looked exhausted.
Ortega’s fury rose as he sent Wigglytuff onto the field. If Toxtricity had only targeted Sylveon, Greedent would have a lot more energy now. But Ryme hadn’t even seen his Pokémon as a threat. She’d been focused on Greedent, and Discharge conveniently knocked out Sylveon in the process. Why? Is it because I look like a little kid? Ortega thought. How does everyone take that brat at the Elite Four seriously, and I’m stuck trying to prove myself all the time?
Grusha gave Cetitan a command that was too quiet to hear. The Pokémon nodded and began bouncing from one foot to another, like it was gearing up for something.
“Hey, any more power-ups you can give?” Arven asked. “I got another move I bet could take down Toxtricity no problem.”
Ortega huffed. He hated playing second fiddle to Arven. Especially when the guy made so clear he had no clue what he was doing. He raises his Pokémon well, though, Ortega had to admit. That counts for something, even if his strategy needs work.
“Discharge again!” said Ryme.
“Cetitan, Bounce!” called her fellow gym leader.
Cetitan bent its knees and, against all logic and physics, shot into the air like a rocket. Electric current rolled across the stage where it had been.
“You better be right about this,” said Ortega. “Wigglytuff, use Helping Hand to assist Greedent!”
“Greedent, use Psychic Fang on Toxtricity!”
Given its bulk, Ortega didn’t expect Greedent to move terribly fast. But when it was told to go sink its teeth into something, it got the job done. Wigglytuff barely had time to perform Helping Hand before the massive rodent charged forward. Its body glowed with the extra power from Wigglytuff. Its bared incisors pulsed with psychic energy. Toxtricity whirled and watched the thing like a Stantler caught in headlights.
Wham! Greedent attached itself to its foe’s left front leg. Toxtricity tried another Discharge to shake it off, but Greedent’s thick fur shrugged off the haphazard attack. Overwhelmed with waves of psychic power, Toxtricity groaned and teetered…
…and finally passed out. Greedent stood over its fallen foe, chattering with delight.
“I will never look at that rodent the same way again,” Ortega muttered.
“Caught Greedent just at the start of the semester, too,” Arven said.
“No kidding?” Now that is impressive. Ortega watched the center of the stage as Toxtricity returned to its Poké Ball and Mimikyu returned in its place. Its disguise remained busted, of course. But it had plenty of fight. Energetic or not, Ryme is still down to her last Pokémon. We can–
The moment he started to feel optimistic, Cetitan came careening down from the sky. Greedent saw it coming and cowered under its own fluffy tail. The two collided with massive force. Cetitan leapt up and spun in the air before landing back in the same position it left. Greedent dizzily swayed back and forth.
“Greedent! Hang in there!” Arven begged.
Hearing its trainers voice rekindled Greedent’s energy. It shook its head and planted its feet on the stage. The Pokémon was a fighter. It could win this.
“You handle Cetitan,” Ortega told Arven. “We’ve got Mimikyu covered.”
Arven nodded and kept his eyes forward.
Across the stage, Ryme was chuckling to herself. “Think you can take my Mimkyu alone, then? Y’know what a punch this Pokémon’s packin’?”
“Oh, I know.” Ortega said. “And it’s quick, too. Practically a blur when it moved across the stage earlier.” He motioned to Wigglytuff. “Meanwhile, my Pokémon’s speed is nothing. She’s slow even for her species. You’d run circles around her, I’m sure.”
Ryme frowned. Ortega got the feeling he’d already given too much away. A shame, but he carried on. “Wigglytuff, use Gyro Ball now!”
Wigglytuff gave a happy trill and spun herself like a top. A metal shield materialized around her, and she twirled forward. Mimikyu darted sideways. Cetitan had started moving from foot to foot again, too caught in its own rhythm to move aside for its ally. The Pokémon’s bulky body blocked off Mimikyu’s escape. Wigglytuff would soon close the gap. Panic set in, and her opponent moved faster, which only built up Gyro Ball’s power when the attack hit. Mimikyu screeched and flew upwards. The eyes hidden under its disguise gleamed with fury.
“Oopsie!” Ortega called out. Maybe he’d ruined the full surprise, but he wouldn’t let it sour his favorite catch phrases. “Did you just realize how outmatched you are? Nobody, and I mean nobody outclasses me when it comes to fairy types!” He pointed his staff at Mimikyu as it landed beside Cetitan. The Pokémon struggled to right itself. “If you wanna give up, now’s the time!”
Mimikyu gave one more hiss and fainted. Ryme recalled it, clearly unhappy with the turn of tide.
“It’s not over yet,” Grusha said. More to his teammate than his opponents. But the certainty in his tone put Ortega on edge.
“Greedent, jump up and use Bullet Seed!” Arven called. “Don’t let Cetitan get back in the air!”
“Let’s finish with our full Fairy power!” Ortega yelled. “Moonblast, now!”
Greedent took a leap upwards and spit out a seed. Cetitan took the hit and readied for the Bounce attack again. Back and forth on each foot, building momentum. Greedent fired two more seeds. Cetitan winced but ignored them. The last two seeds fired. Cetitan’s knees bent.
Then it was flooded in a blast of pink light, courtesy of Wigglytuff.
Cetitan let out a roar worthy of a dragon. But its knees buckled as it collapsed onto the stage.
The battle was over.
Arven stared at their fallen foe, his jaw slack in disbelief. “We…we did it!” he gasped.
“Well, don’t sound shocked about it,” Ortega said. “It ruins our image.” He raised his hand. “Now act like we planned this all along.”
If Arven felt put-down by Ortega’s first remark, he did a 180 on the second. “Sure we did,” he said and swung his own hand hard into the high-five.
This was a mistake.
A jolt of energy shocked Ortega’s body, like he’d grabbed a Pikachu by the tail. The force threw him backwards. His staff spiraled off somewhere. At the same time, Arven cried out in pain, flung in the opposite direction. The two of them landed on the edges of the stage.
Then things got bad.
Ortega rolled over onto his back, his arms and face burning. Snow flurries hung suspended in midair above him. The overcast sky went from detailed and textured to a flat, pixelated grayscale. It returned to normal within moments, only for the cloud cover to crack and split. Sections vanished and reappeared like pieces popping in and out of a puzzle. And the shadows cast by those clouds went absolutely haywire.
Ortega winced and looked over the stage, where sections of dark and light flickered at a frantic pace. The fearful audience was working itself into a panic, with Ryme doing her best to keep them under control. Her clear voice, which could rapid-fire through the most tongue-twisting lyrics, caught their attention and gave them a focal point besides their fear. The people of Montenevera were in this together, she told them. They would help each other out. They could get to safety. She pointed towards the exits. Advised them to shelter inside until the strange phenomenon had passed.
The crowd began to flow in the direction she’d pointed. Well, most of the crowd at least. Penny, Juliana, and Nemona rushed onto the stage. Penny knelt beside Ortega, while Nemona ran over to Arven. “Are you okay? Tell me you’re okay!” the school council president demanded.
Much to Ortega’s relief, Arven gave an affirmative grunt.
“Ortie?” Penny’s normally calm voice cracked. “Ortie, please say something!”
Ortega coughed. Every muscle ached worse, but it at least told Penny he was breathing. “I-I’ll be all right, I think.” He shakily sat up. Dizziness crashed over him, and Penny held him steady. “I wanna puke…” he muttered.
“Not on me, please,” she said, then rubbed at her eyes. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Well, I’m alive at least.” He flexed his fingers, his hands strangely empty. “Lost my staff, though.”
“Good riddance to it!” Nemona called out. “Sorry, but that thing is a health hazard.” She had Arven up on his feet, his arm over her shoulder, supporting him as they walked across the stage. No serious injuries, though Arven’s hair and clothes made it look like he’d walked through a Whirlwind attack. He also appeared to be…glowing?
It was difficult to make out among the hyperactive, changing shadows, but Ortega could swear he saw a faint red aura around Arven. Then he took another look at his own hands. Something was off about them, too.
Ortega yanked one of his gloves off to see better. His hand pulsed with a faint purple glow.
“Okay, it’s never done that before,” he said, surprised at how calm his own voice sounded. Maybe the tranquil–or at least non-panicked–vibe Ryme instilled in the crowd was contagious.
“Let me see,” Penny said. Less of a request and more of a command. Ortega dutifully held his hand out, and Penny examined it, snapping several pictures with her phone. She got a few shots of Arven as well, but within a minute, the effect faded. “How long has this been happening?” she asked Ortega. “Not the glowing. I mean your anomalies in general.”
“I told you and the crew already. About three weeks.”
Penny rolled her eyes. “How long has it been happening for real?”
“I…” Ortega slipped his glove back on in a pathetic attempt to stall. The shadows’ flickering had slowed, but a persistent one flashed on and off above his head. “It’s been half a year. Maybe more?”
“Maybe?” Penny said.
“Give us a break,” Arven said. “It’s not like either of us kept a journal the first time this happened.” He pulled his arm off Nemona’s shoulder, determined to show he could stand on his own. His massive backpack almost pulled him down again. Nemona held out her hand and with a sigh, Arven removed his pack and handed it over. She slipped over her own shoulders like it weighed absolutely nothing.
“The first incident was right around the time of Operation Star,” Ortega said. “Eighteen months ago. But then a whole year went by with nothing. I thought it was some freak event that would never happen again.”
Footsteps shuffled across the stage as he spoke. The group turned to see Grusha approach, his gaze half on them and half on the exiting audience. After one last trio of flickers for good measure, the clouds and shadows returned to normal.
“You kids should get going once everyone clears out,” Grusha said, even more solemn than usual. “I don’t recommend staying in town.” He tilted his head up at the sky. The light-and-shadow show might have ended, but it wasn’t a scene the citizens of Montenevera would forget anytime soon.
“Hold on. You’re saying we did this?” Juliana asked in shock.
“You’re saying you didn’t?” Grusha countered.
Ortega and Arven exchanged a guilty look. “Well, not on purpose,” Arven said.
“I’m guessing that distinction doesn’t matter much to a mob of terrified people,” Grusha said. “Ryme’s got them redirected for now, but there were more than a few talks about you. Frankly, the two of us are going to catch heat for not interrogating you to Alola and back.”
“Riiight. Not that I’m complaining or anything,” Nemona said. “But why don’t you?”
Grusha kept staring at the strangely calm sky. A few flurries had started to fall again. “My career feels over, and I’m not even thirty,” he said. “Some preschooler–a preschooler–holds one of the most coveted jobs in the world of Pokémon battles.” He pulled down his scarf and nodded at each member of the group in turn. “You kids. Every last one of you is headed for something big. I don’t mean eventually. Or when you grow up. I mean it’s right around the corner. Because that’s the nonsensical world I appear to be living in.” He pulled his scarf back up. “If Paldea stands a chance, we don’t need a bunch of adults hammering you with questions. We need you to go out there and work whatever magic seems to possess everyone younger than eighteen in this place.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a Poké Ball. Just a normal one, so it could have been anything, but Juliana held out her hand and received it.
“Your Beartic seems normal and healthy to me,” Grusha said. “Train him up the same way you would any ice-types, and you’ll have a nice ace up your sleeve if an important battle is going wrong. Caves are great. Flying Noibats, Gogoats on the peaks, ground-types all inside…plus the cool temperature makes for way better training than a desert. Just watch out for rock-type attacks, and you’ll be fine. Oh, and here.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew four shiny pieces of metal. Ortega startled when the gym leader pulled his hand forward and dropped two pairs of official gym badges into his palm. “You did earn them.”
Ortega nodded and pocketed the badges while Juliana attached Beartic’s Poké Ball to her belt. “Thanks for all the help,” she said.
“Hmph,” Grusha answered, waving her away as he went to direct the last of the crowd out of the area. “Man, I am way too young for this ‘wise old mentor’ crap.”
And with those sage words, the group hurried to the back end of the stage, sneaking off the moment they were out of the crowd’s view.
“We should call a flying taxi,” Juliana insisted once they’d gotten into the mountains again. The frigid air made her shiver, but more importantly, she really didn’t want to go riding a Pokémon on these slopes again.
“Two flying taxis,” Ortega corrected. He motioned between himself at the front of the line and Arven at the back. “Just in case Arven and I making contact again causes the world to explode.”
Nobody laughed at the joke. At least, Juliana sincerely hoped it was a joke.
“I still don’t get why it’s both of us,” Arven said. “I mean, Mom was capable of anything when it came to her work. If you told me she accidentally washed my hair with reality-bending goo as a kid, I’d believe it.”
“‘Was’?” Juliana asked. She didn’t recall Arven saying his mom was deceased, but then again, he barely discussed her at all.
Arven continued like he hadn’t heard. “But if this is her fault, it’d only affect me, right? So why you too, Ortie?”
Penny raised an eyebrow at her fellow Team Star boss. “Does everyone call you that?”
“No. Only my treasured friends and people who know it annoys me.” He narrowed his eyes at Arven, not clarifying which category he fit into. For all Juliana knew, it could be both. “What exactly do you remember about the Area Zero lab from back then?”
Arven shook his head. “I don’t remember being down there as a kid at all. Why?”
Ortega pressed his lips together. He took a deep breath, clearly about to launch into sone long, involved monologue. Before he could utter a syllable, however, Penny’s phone buzzed. She tapped the top of the phone to send it to voicemail, but it only rang again seconds later. With a sigh of resignation, Penny pulled the phone out of her pocket.
“I swear, every time there’s about to be a backstory reveal…” she muttered as she checked the caller’s ID. Juliana couldn’t see the name, but she did catch sight of the profile photo–an intimidating girl with blonde hair and a loud, colorful wrestling mask.
Penny slid the button to answer. “Eri?”
“Boss!” shouted a frantic voice on the other end. Juliana startled at the volume. Granted, she was right next to Penny, but Eri sounded clear enough to be on speaker.
“What’s the matter?” Penny said. “Is someone hurt?”
“No, we’re fine!”Eri answered. “It’s about the last titan, boss! It’s…well, we don’t know what happened, but–”
There was some shuffling on the other line, and another girl’s voice–higher-pitched and downright adorable–shouted, “Giacomo murdered it!”
“Shut up!” yelled a distant male voice. “I did not!”
“Slow down, all of you,” said Penny.
The group of conflicting voices instantly hushed.
Penny nodded her approval, even though it was a voice-only call. “Good. Now that we’re settled, tell me everything.”